Friday, April 27, 2007

Arrivee a Paris


I should really be writing this bulletin in French.
For speaking French, I discover, is not at all like riding a bicycle. I have been here 15 hours (most of them asleep) and -- after five years in which the French language has not been a part of my life in any way -- already I’m back to thinking in French, burbling with sufficient cheek if not always absolute accuracy in French, and well on the way back to my semi-bilingualism of the twentieth century.

It is some twenty-four hours since I and my red bag and my green suitcase set out from Oxford.
Elizabeth drove me to the station, and I got myself a twenty pound (!) train-and-tube ticket which would take me right through from Oxford to Paddington and Waterloo/Eurostar. I was just a little bit nervous about the unfamiliar trip, but it turned out a breeze.

I had been warned not to take the ’stopping train’ from Oxford to Paddington, so when the clean, comfortable and empty Great Western (purple, better than Virgin but not as good as Midland) train times for 9.11 came along I (having boarded) got off, to wait for the 9.38 direct. Of course, it didn’t come. Another slow train came and went, I got deep into a conversation with a lad from Poole on his way back to University where he is studying ‘Film’, and still no ‘express’. Thank goodness I had given myself a huge pillow of time! In the end the thing ambled into Oxford station just before 10am, grubby and groaning at the seams. I was lucky to get a seat. Many people didn’t, but, now that I’m 61, I no longer feel obliged to stand up for other folk in trains.

The train (express?!) ambled its way to London, and we got in around 11. I suppose Paddington station has changed a bit, but it seemed just the same to me, and I knew perfectly how to find my way to the underground Bakerloo southbound platform. But it wasn’t until I got into the (half-empty hurrah!) carriage that it hit me. I was in London. Back in London. The city which was my home for longer than any other has ever been. I had a momentary backflash, and a yearning to change trains for Green Park and go ‘home’ to Hill Street, Berkeley Square. All my ‘I’ll never go to London again’ speeches suddenly seemed like so much nonsense. I WANTED to be in London. But, of course, not only do I not have a home there any more, I now hardly know anybody who does. So it would all be different. But, nevertheless, that carriage on the Bakerloo line really broke down a big barrier in my head. In spite of what I have always thought, I COULD spend time in London again.

But that was not for today. Today I was seeing only the underside of London, plus a couple of stations. Waterloo, of course, has changed. The Eurostar installations were not there in my day. And they are almost more like an airport than a train station. You have to pass through’ security’ and through passport control, and then you find yourself in the inevitable tacky shopping mall, reminiscent of EMA. The shops take up so much space that there are insufficient places for passengers to sit and wait, especially when there is more than one train due, and so folk who do not wish to shop or partake of the vastly overpriced food and drink (‘coffee: two pounds off’ off WHAT?!) are obliged to perch on suitcases or the floor.

My nervousness meant that I was in fact two hours early for my train, and I watched instead as the previous one – which was cheaper and which I had refused ‘just in case’ -- went off, feeling just a tad silly.

Even though everyone has numbered tickets, there was the usual old British rush and shove to get aboard once the gun went, fat ladies with ten suitcases of course at the head of affairs. The new fashion in lethal instruments is those vulgar small, hard suitcases with wheels and an expandable handle. More than half the passengers were seemingly equipped with these, but very few of them seemed to know how to drive them. Mostly, it seems, over other people’s feet. My red bag, however, is good defence, and I won several battles with the wheelie brigade.

My heart sank when I boarded. My seat’s ‘foursome’ consisted of myself, a mother of indeterminate semi-Asian features and two little girls. Across the isle was another mama and a very little black boy. Behind me was a bassinette with a bawling baby. It is about time train and plane companies introduced baby carriages, as they used to have smoking carriages.
In the event, the children chummed up with the black mama and played cards most of the way, and I ended up having a pleasant conversation with the mother of the girls who was an English teacher in France, and married to a man who works for .. Apple Mackintosh. In fact, it was my computer which opened our conversation. When I took it out to start putting together my article on Emily Soldene and me for Frank van Straaten’s Australian magazine, the little girl next to me exploded .. ‘Oh maman regarde! Un Apple!’..

Eurostar ran smoothly and on time. Less than three hours the whole trip. And the bit under the water is remarkably short: only about 20 minutes.
Anyway, in spite of the uncomfortable conditions at Waterloo I can confirm that it is definitely more sensible than traipsing to Heathrow and flying to de Gaulle.

At the Gare du Nord, all went smoothly. The meeting between the two men who had never seen the other before went without a hitch. I actually recognised Christophe before he recognised me. Well, I had seen him on TV only a week earlier… also he is taller than most men and has rather distinctive spectacles.

Outside the gare du Nord it was chaos. The taxi ranks were en folie. So, in spite of the red bag and the green valise, we decided to walk a bit. The area in which the Gare is situated is less than delightful, but as we continued south things got better. We passed any number of the Parisian theatres (Renaissance, Porte St Martin, Gaite, &c) that I know so well from my books .. alas few are still proper theatres… and various other ‘familiar’ Parisian landmarks en route. When we reached the Marais we rested our feet for a little and took a refreshing campari at what was evidently a gay café (The marais has become it appears the gay quartier of Paris). Oh dear. It wasn’t much better than the Amsterdam gay bars. No one seemed to be actually enjoying themselves. Rows of mostly very plain middle aged men and gormless youths seated at tiny tables sipping desultory drinks, and looking gloomily out to the street where occasionally more unattractive males, all built on the same dull model and dressed in the same lack-of-style wandered by. I felt distinctly colourful and out of place! As for my red bag…

I was, by now, utterly lost. I know the Marais. Ian and I went there years ago for an exhibition of ... I think it was Fernand Leger paintings. And I found a little shop where I bought some rare French theatre books (now in the possession of Michael Miller) and a bundle of pictures of French singers most of which ended up as illustrations in my ENCYCLOPAEDIA. But if you asked me to place it in relation to the rest of Paris, I couldn’t.

The truth is, I don’t know Paris much at all. I’ve been here quite a few times but, usually, as with so many other cities, it has been a case of airport-taxi-hotel-theatre-restaurant-hotel-sleep-airport-home. Only a couple of times have I wandered around the city to any extent, and they were a very long time ago. Also I don’t think I made it down Montparnasse way. So I have a lot to learn.

Anyway, in spite of our sizeable walk, it was still a taxi ride to the 14th arrondissement which, I now know is in the South of Paris and not very near to the 10th where Ian and I stayed ‘chez Sparrow et Mareuil’ last tie we were here.

I am staying at a ‘petit hotel, pas cher’ very near to the home of Christophe and Jules or Pierre. It is called the Hotel Plaisance and it is in the Rue de Gergovie (which sounds like something out of Asterix). Well, it is certainly petit. And amazingly ‘pas cher’. 44 Euros – ie about $80NZ -- a night with breakfast. It is sort of the utter antithesis to Hoar Cross Hall. It reminds me mostly of the ancient Pension Quisisana in which I stayed in Vienna in the 90s.
The owner is Chinese. The building is old. I don’t know how many rooms there are, but from the old letter rack at the foot of the dark stairs it seems that there have been at some stage quite a few. The corridors look like something out of an old black and white film. Shabby beyond belief. And my room? Number five is about the size of my old bedroom at Gerolstein, with high ceiling and a large double window overlooking the street. It has a good, firm double bed with Chinese-immaculate-laundered linen and a bedcover which has seen better days. It has one small table, one small chair, and a shelf with a rail underneath containing nine wire coathangers. Full stop. There are curtains on the window, but apart from that no decoration at all. No jigsawpuzzle pictures on the wall. Nothing. It is a Bed Room. And why not? Perhaps this is what is euphemistically referred to as a ‘day hotel’?
Number 5 has, however, its own bathroom. A fine, strong shower and new white basin with zinging hot and cold water, a new lavatory and .. full stop. It is equipped with one extra-white towel and two tooth glasses which are not big enough for ones dentures at night. No soap. No plug in the basin (I remember those quirks in other French hotels of 100 years ago…).
So the Hotel Plaisance is, in fact, exactly what I need. A small, clean place to sleep and bathe .. voila tout. Because I am not going to be spending time here. Christophe has a busy time prepared for me: most of the time I am going to be out out out, returning just to sleep and change clothes.

We dumped my bags in my room, I washed my face, changed my shirt and off we went to join Christophe’s partner, (who is either Jules or Pierre ... my hearing let me down) and Berenice the little white ?poodle, at the corner bistro. And there, over a handful of beers – and endless ‘escapes’ by Berenice who is the most sociable and adorable of pooches and who has made a complete conquest of the barman! – my French started to warm up nicely.
However, my deafness and Christophe’s sometimes expansive vocabulary meant that sometimes listening was harder than speaking! But I shall get there! By tonight I expect to be firing on all French cylinders.

From the bistro we moved on to a tiny Italian restaurant for a pleasant meal (calamari and carpaccio de boeuf, with the white wine which I seem suddenly to have come around to) which was interrupted when Berenice decided to go for a gambol and alas I had tied her lead to .. the wine bottle! How dumb can you get! My excuse is that it had been a long day.

A delightful evening, making plans, talking theatre (of course) and books, and – even though Christophe and I have been corresponding for something like five years – getting to know one another…

And then, back to the Hotel Plaisance, number 5, and a deep sleep.

Its 9.30am now. I was up at 7, investigated the bathroom, played with my new face unguents (they really ARE making an improvement) and discovered how difficult it is to shave in a sink without a plug.
At 7.30 I descended for breakfast .. alone. I think there IS someone else staying here. I saw a pair of legs disappearing up to the 2nd floor, but it may have been one of the ruling Chinese family. I also heard quite a noise of tramping feet around 6.30am. But that may have been ditto. (Surprisingly, although Rue de Gergovie is a busy street I heard nothing from outside .. I can now for I have the window open and wailing horns, thumping car radios, squealing tyres etc are the order of the day)
Anyway I had breakfast to myself. One croissant, one piece of baguette, a packet of butter and another of jam, plus a small jug of coffee. Exactly right.
And while I was at it, I persuaded the gentleman who served me (and whose French may not be quite up to mine!) to come up with a bowl. He looked rather blank until I explained that people with false teeth need something in which to soak them overnight. However, I have sussed that I shall also use my precious bowl for shaving in between times!

So now I am back in number five with the diary. Shortly I will package this up and wander forth. Not too far, for I don’t yet have a map and I don’t want to get lost. I shall go to Monoprix and buy a piece of soap! I am due to meet Christophe (who has a meeting this morning) at midday at the bistro, to begin our day and night. It appears the bistro is WiFi, so I should with any luck be able to get a message off to those of you who are on xtra.

Which means I may even be able to get a slightly early ‘Happy Birthday for Wednesday’ message through to mother. ‘Happy Birthday, mum!’.

And until soon

PS I, who know nothing about such things, have discovered that this Sunday is the first round of the French Presidential elections. The mostly hotly contested election, it appears, in decades. And I shall be right in the heart of it!

PPS I see I have not explained Christophe et Jules-Pierre. Christophe is, with Kevin, one of my musical-theatre bookwriting protégés. We have lived ‘together’ over the past five years his series of professional ‘crises’ just as I have lived with Kevin his personal ones. Christophe doesn’t have personal ones, he and Jules-Pierre (I really must find out which it is) have been together for ages. I will abstain from further detail until I get this name thing sorted out…

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